Monday, June 4, 2012


JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
02 JUNE 2012
R: 2.5/5

Pictured: Sean Arbuckle

STRATFORD — In venturing into the beloved world of Gilbert and Sullivan on behalf of the Stratford Festival, director Ethan McSweeny has tried to rise above the same old same-old as represented by the D’Oyly Carte Company and its heirs and assigns.

That is the same kind of determination, one suspects, that fired Tyrone Guthrie and Brian MacDonald when they each brought G&S to the Stratford stage. But as THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE that took to the Avon stage Friday under McSweeney’s direction proves, there’s many a step between determination and realization — and countless ways to get lost in the wilderness of recreation. To put it succinctly, McSweeney finds some new ideas for a modern take on Gilbert and Sullivan, but he fails utterly to separate wheat from chaff. Not only do his ideas tumble over each other in this too-often cluttered production, they also collide regularly with the very tradition he’s trying to overthrow.

In a production alternately engaging and infuriating, McSweeney and his creative team set out to lead an energetic cast on a merry chase without first establishing a through-line in the silly, delightful tale. It all starts from a backstage point of view — and while the transition to a traditional production is handled effectively, it creates expectations of some sort of future pay-off — but as this tale of a bunch of madcap pirates and their misadventures with a “modern” major general and his bevy of beautiful daughters unravels, it adds up to a promissory note returned at the end of the evening stamped “non-sufficient fun.” Worse, in a world constantly on the edge of crisis, the most topical and contemporary this production gets is a self-congratulatory history of the Stratford Festival that is simply too ingratiating by half.

From a casting point of view, there are hits and misses, with Kyle Blair turning in a strong, unfaltering performance as Frederic, the dutiful young man mistakenly apprenticed to the pirates of title by his befuddled nursemaid Ruth (Gabrielle Jones, starting strong until she’s forced to appear looking like an extra from and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). As Frederic’s love interest, Mabel, Amy Wallis is adequate but never gets the chance to shine.

Sean Arbuckle also starts strong as the Pirate King, too, serving a potent mix of a swash-buckling Errol Flynn and a swish Johnny Depp transplanted from the Caribbean, but sadly, by the time the second act begins, he’s drunk too deeply of it and loses his way. And while C. David Johnson’s Major-General Stanley might be “the very model of a modern major general,” his singing voice and his command of music and lyrics probably need some adjustment before that model goes into production. Happily, Steve Ross proves a commanding presence as the Sergeant of Police, but like so many in this cast, he’s undone by the costuming choices of Paul Tazewell and further tripped up by Marcos Santana’s choreography and Anna Louizos’s fussy set design. Finally, even the glorious music on which this operetta has endured gets a bit of a mash-up from musical director Franklin Brasz, whose efforts to add modern flourishes simply add to the muddle.

There are more than a few people involved in this modernization who should, methinks, be very grateful keelhauling is no longer in fashion.

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